Write what you know, writers are told. But maybe the advice should be: Write what you cannot forget.
Twin Cities writers Kevin Fenton and Kate Hopper, both graduates of the University of Minnesota MFA program and authors of new memoirs, have each spent years digging deeply in the same fertile patch of ground: For Fenton, it’s the quiet corner of Minnesota where he grew up on a dairy farm.
“I’ve always wanted to write about place,” Fenton said. “It’s kind of the way I sort out how I interact with the world.” For Hopper, it’s the world of motherhood. “There’s long been a sense that motherhood is not literary or serious enough,” she said. “I want to widen that discussion.”
Even though the ground they work is both familiar and beloved, the deeper they dig, the more they are surprised.
Kate Hopper had her thesis all planned out: She would write about three generations of women who made ceramics in a small town in Costa Rica. Hopper had spent two years with these women while on a Fulbright Scholarship, and she had observed firsthand the changes modern life was bringing to this traditionally matriarchal society.
And then she signed up for memoirist Barrie Jean Borich’s writing class at the Loft Literary Center. To her surprise, out poured Stella’s story.
Hopper was pregnant with Stella, her first child, in 2003. It was a busy time; she was married, teaching at the University of Minnesota, working on an MFA, and writing her thesis, which was not exactly flowing. She didn’t feel well — swollen and sluggish and slow. She figured it was just part of being pregnant, but in early September, she was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure: pre-eclampsia. Her life, and her baby’s life, were in danger.
Stella was born by C-section, six weeks early and weighing less than 4 pounds. “A miniature thing, smaller than a doll,” Hopper wrote later. “A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web.”
No more teaching. No more MFA. No more thesis. Hopper’s whole life became this tiny infant, a baby so ill and so fragile that Hopper felt herself holding back in fear.
“I was so scared that Stella was going to die, I didn’t want to love her,” she said.
The story of Stella became Hopper’s thesis for her MFA, which she resumed in 2004, and now, years later, Stella’s story is Hopper’s second book, “Ready for Air,” published this month by the University of Minnesota Press.
Writing about Stella meant exploring what it means to be both a woman and a writer. At the time, Hopper said, “nobody was writing the real hard stuff of being a mother.” The books and essays on motherhood that she found were relentlessly happy, often sentimental. But Hopper was looking for more than that — she craved stories that got at what she considered to be the secret, hard truths: conflicted feelings, depression and boredom, difficulty in bonding, being so sleep-deprived and exhausted that you don’t fully trust yourself.
“What do you do when you’re scared you’re going to throw your baby down the stairs?” she said. “I didn’t see anything out there about how hard and isolating it was. I wanted to get my voice out there. I wanted to push back against the stereotype of perfect motherhood.
“When I started to write in Barrie’s class, I thought, ‘This is the book.’ ”
Hopper’s husband, Donny Gramenz, worked full-time, so her father stepped in as baby sitter while she wrote. She went back to school, finished the MFA, graduated in 2005 and began querying agents.
Big thud back to Earth.
Agents were not interested. One told her, “Nobody wants to read about preemies. It’s too dark.” Another told her that, no offense, but the book made Hopper seem deranged.
She set the manuscript aside, started over. “I was a better writer by then,” she said. “It took me two years to rewrite it,” and during that time she began teaching classes at the Loft and elsewhere geared toward mothers who write.
Her first book, “Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers,” published by Viva Editions, grew out of those classes.
“Ready for Air” eventually found an agent, and was accepted last year by Todd Orjala, then the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Minnesota Press. In late September, a few days before Stella’s 10th birthday, the completed book was delivered to Hopper. It was such a powerful experience to finally see it done, she said, “I cried all day.”
Hopper still conducts retreats and online classes for women, but she is beginning to branch out. She’s ghost-writing a memoir for a couple who have a profoundly autistic son, and she’s working on a novel — not about motherhood, although the protagonist is a mother.
But she is grateful that her ordeal helped her to find her voice. “Motherhood made me a writer,” Hopper said. “In writing this book, I was writing something that feels urgent to me.”
The rolling bluffs and farm fields of southeastern Minnesota rub like a wrinkle in Kevin Fenton’s brain. They’re a pebble in his shoe, a skip in his heart. It’s not just that it’s beautiful country; it’s Fenton country, and it’s at the center of everything he writes.
Fenton’s memoir, “Leaving Rollingstone,” was published last month by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book is about moving from the family dairy farm outside of Rollingstone to Minnesota City, then to Winona (and eventually to the Twin Cities).
It’s a memoir both gritty and nostalgic, laced with humor and told both from Fenton’s perspective as a child, and his quite different perspective as a grown man. Fenton the child remembers halcyon days on the farm, playing Twister, playing hockey, dancing in the kitchen to the Beatles on the radio.
Fenton the adult looks back on that time and sees it more fully: His father was disabled and drank too much; his older brother took on too much responsibility; his mother was always worried — about money, jobs, her husband’s health.
“What surprises me looking back isn’t the despair my parents felt but how bravely they fought against it,” he wrote.
Fenton has been writing about that part of his life, and that part of the state, for years. His first novel, “Merit Badges,” which won the AWP Prize for the Novel, is set in Winona (called, in the book, Minnisapa).
And, long before that, it was poetry. (Poetry about which he says, “I hope it’s all burned.”)
“It’s about the same place, it’s about the same thing,” he said. “All my writing has been about the same basic topic. I keep taking these runs at it in different genres.”
The landscape around Rollingstone, about 12 miles northwest of Winona, looks “more like upstate New York or Vermont,” he said. “It’s the part of Minnesota that the glaciers missed. Rolling hills, beautiful valleys, dairy farms. We lived on the ridge, just above the valley.”
The town’s only school was Catholic, because everyone in town was Catholic. (Truly. Everyone.) And except for the Fentons, everyone in town was Luxembourger. “My dad was known as ‘the Irish guy,’ because he was the only one they’d ever seen,” he said.
A place this distinct, during a time that poignant, made an impression. And having it all taken away so abruptly — the family sold the farm and moved in 1969 — left everything frozen in his mind.
Not all writers have a strong tie to a specific place, Fenton said. But for him, “there was a culture there that was very distinctive and insular,” he said. “And then we lost it all.”
Fenton graduated from Winona High School and Beloit College in Wisconsin, moved to the Cities, went to law school, got a job in advertising. Writing, he said, was always his Saturday thing. “I write privately on weekends. I’ve written some version of something all my life,” he said.
Over the years, he submitted manuscripts to competitions — including an early version of “Merit Badges” — and always did well but never won. Finally, “I kept thinking, I’ve been working at this for 10 years and I’m tired of just being close.”
He went back to school, earning an MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2005. “It really did push me,” he said. “I know MFA programs get a lot of flak, but I can testify that the Minnesota MFA program took me from being someone OK and promising to someone who can write a book that someone would want to read.”
Fenton now lives in St. Paul and is working on a second novel — one that is inching away from Rollingstone. The protagonist first appeared in “Merit Badges” (“the single least significant character,” he said), and while the book has elements of Winona and Rollingstone in it, “it’s really about Minneapolis and St. Paul. So I think in some ways, as the main topic of a book, I have exhausted them, but there is still a strand in the third book.”